Guantanamo Bay and Bush's War on Terror


Guantanamo: What the World Should Know
By Michael Ratner and Ellen Ray
Scribe Publications, 2004
166 pages, $22.73


Of all the books that have come out recently examining the consequences of George Bush's presidency and the "war on terror", this one is perhaps the best yet. Its focus may be small, but its concentration is on one of the most insidious, and perhaps far-reaching, aspects of the current US administration: Guantanamo Bay.

"Guantanamo represents everything that is wrong with the US war on terrorism", states Michael Ratner, in the conclusion to Guantanamo: What the World Should Know, which he co-authored with Ellen Ray. Ratner is an international human rights lawyer, based in the US, and president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ray is president of the Institute for Media Analysis, also based in the US.

Guantanamo Bay Naval Station is a US military base situated in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. It is a hangover from the Spanish-US war at the turn of the 20th century. Under the 1903 treaty that Cuba was forced by the US to sign to gain its independence, Cuba was required to ease to the US 118 square kilometres of coastal land under a number of seemingly irrevocable conditions.

The first provision of the treaty removes all authority from Cuba over control of the bay area. The second provision is that the lease can only be dissolved if both parties agree, and while, since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Cuba has wanted to dissolve the agreement — it has even gone as far as refusing payment for lease of the land since that date — the US refuses to give its consent.

Guantanamo Bay is thus under US military occupation, and the US government is able to use the area without legal or moral constraints being placed upon it by the US constitution or federal laws.

Interestingly, by using Guantanamo Bay as a prison camp, the US government has defaulted on its 1903 treaty with Cuba, which states that the area is "for use as coaling or naval stations only, and for no other purpose".

In Guantanamo: What the World Should Know, Ratner and Ray show how President Bush rules Guantanamo Bay by executive fiat: "This is a totalitarian system, in which there are no checks and balances on the executive. The president can do whatever he wants, acting as a dictator."

Under Bush's administration, Guantanamo Bay has been used as an interrogation camp, with increasing human rights abuses — abuses that, until June of this year, had been kept out of reach of the US courts.

I recently had the opportunity to put a few questions to Ratner. I asked him if he thinks that Guantanamo Bay is in some way a model for how Bush would like to run the US mainland, and if he could get away with it. And I asked if, after Bush instated Military Order No. 1, whereby the president could in effect rule the country as a general, the notion of rule by executive fiat was one which could possibly be applied to his whole presidency.

Ratner replied: "Yes, rule by executive fiat could be and already has been extended to the entire mainland USA. While Military Order No. 1 only applied to non-citizens, the president has claimed the power to do likewise to citizens as well and has imprisoned at least one person who was in the US — Jose Padilla — on the basis of his claimed war powers.

"Rule by executive fiat is really rule without the ability of the courts to review executive actions or when such review does occur to say that national security trumps any real review of the executive's actions. Hundreds of non-citizens arrested after 9/11 were jailed without court review, treated as terrorists, and eventually deported. Even when court review was permitted the hearings were held in secret and secret evidence was employed.

"The Bush administration believes that the war on terror justifies almost anything apparently even including torture. If it is exempt from that prohibition, and other constitutional restraints, we are talking about dictatorship.

"In the area of peaceful protest and dissent, the nature of the current government has been revealed. There is a major attack on dissent in the US. Our demonstrations are limited by so-called national security; people are put in pens to protest. Arrests and FBI harassment are frequent.

"For Muslims and Arabs in the US the police state has arrived; stories are rampant of jailing based primarily on the ethnicity or Muslim religion of those detained."

Responding to the question of how he thinks most Americans view the US-Australia military alliance, Ratner replied: "From the US point of view, it is assumed that Australia and Australians are just like us — white (although US is now over 30% black, Hispanic and Asian), friendly etc. — just like the UK. Closeness is just assumed and does not figure in our world view at all. I think that as China becomes more dominant, Australia will become more important in US relations."

What did he think of how the Australian government had dealt with the handling of the two Australian detainees of Guantanamo Bay, David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib? How do did he think Canberra should have handled the situation when it first arose?

"In my view", Ratner replied, "the Australian government's handling of Hicks and Habib has been an embarrassment. It seemed to swallow the US line both as to guilt and type of trial — hook, line and sinker. Even the UK did better, but Australia just followed. Australia had an obligation to protect its citizens that it is still not following. It should have insisted upon a genuine hearing immediately as well as lawyer and doctor access. Its behaviour, particularly in light of allegations regarding treatment and the medical condition of Habib, is shocking."

From Green Left Weekly, December 15, 2004.
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